Even when he was on top of the world, Mike Nichols was convinced that his fame, his fortune, his worldly goods and starry friends could disappear at any time, and it made him mad. He was the accidental tsurist.
“I’m genuinely happy, probably for the first time,” he complained to his therapist. “I love my wife. I love my life. I love my kids – they’re turning out to be great people. I love my work. Why am I still so pissed off? Why hasn’t that gone away?”
“It can’t,” the shrink replied. “That’s who you are.”
I wasn’t perched on the end of the couch in the room where that happened, and neither was Mark Harris, who recounts it. Nichols himself spilled it to Vanity Fair writer Joan Juliet Buck. But Harris knows a telling detail when he reads it, and his biography, Mike Nichols: A Life is full of them, culled from hundreds of his own interviews with the director and his circle, as well as a newspaper morgue full of stories about him.
God knows, there was plenty to sift through: Nichols had more lives than a litter of cats. Harris’ greater challenge was to compose a story as compellingly entertaining as its subject, one of the most charismatic raconteurs we’ve had the good fortune to grow up with. On the evidence, Harris has produced a biography that transcends the prodigiously reported facts and wild-ride circumstances of Nichols’ lives. The book pulses with a narrative energy equal to its subject. When was the last time you read a biography that also was a page-turner?
Nichols already had the taste of stardom when Broadway producer Arnold Saint Subber invited him to stage Neil Simon’s new comedy, Nobody Loves Me, at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. Saint Subber, who had been Cole Porter’s and Paddy Chayevsky’s producer and now was bringing young Simon along, had little to go on but intuition. Until then, the early 1960s, Nichols was only known for his partnership with Elaine May, a duo whose hip, improvisational comedy had traveled from Chicago clubs to SRO on Broadway.
But from the first rehearsal with Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, to opening night at the Biltmore Theatre, by which time Nobody Loves Me had been re-christened Barefoot in the Park, Nichols knew that he’d found his true calling.
“In one day of work, he had discovered exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his career,” Harris writes. “He was struck by two revelations. The first was that, rather than acting, ‘this was the job I had been preparing for without knowing it.’ … The second discovery was more personal: “If you’re missing your father, as I had all during my adolescence, there’s something about playing the role of a father that is very reassuring. I had a sense of enormous relief and joy that I had found a process that … allowed me to be my father and the group’s father.”
Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky was born in Berlin in 1931. His father, a Russian-born radiologist, managed to move the family, which included his German mother and his younger brother Paul, to New York in 1939, where his father’s patients included celebrity émigrés. Two events would have a lifelong impact on Nichols: a defective whooping cough vaccine rendered the boy hairless, and his father died when he was 12.
One of his father’s patients was the legendary Russian impresario Sol Hurok. Nichols often told the story of Hurok needling him: “Mike, d’joor feery funny,” Hurok would say, in his heavy Russian accent. “But d’joor fadder vuz funnier.” When he told me the story, during an interview shortly before he died, at 83, in 2014, Nichols added, “There was no time to be a good father. There was no time for anything … I was sent to boarding school because I was difficult. Then he got leukemia and he died. I sort of had to go get him and start imaginary conversations with him,” he said, adding, after a perfectly timed beat, “We’re doing very well!”
Nichols’ collaboration with Simon was providential, not to mention lucrative. To Simon’s unerring ability to crack an audience up, Nichols brought an uncanny sense of the physical action that suffused a scene with life. The Odd Couple opens with a poker game, no one’s idea of seat-gripping action. Nichols gave each actor enough specific business to differentiate the characters, and the ticket buyers a stake in the proceedings.
After a string of hits on Broadway, Nichols made an equally astonishing transition to film with his first movies, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge. He flew Dustin Hoffman, his unlikely choice for the leading role of Benjamin Braddock, out to Hollywood for a screen test that, before the running camera, looked deeply unpromising. Watching the test onscreen, he recalls, changed everything. Hoffman had “that secret, that deal with Technicolor where you do nothing and it turns out you were doing everything,” Nichols recalled. “That’s what a great movie actor does. They don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know how they do it, but the difference is shocking.”
On Broadway, his gifts had helped turn Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing into a major hit; on screen, his catalogue raisonné would veer wildly from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge to Working Girl, Silkwood, The Birdcage and HBO’s stunning adaptation of Angels in America. There also was a lot of junk along the way, jobs Nichols took for the money and in which he had little intellectual investment. Through it all, he earned a reputation as an exacting but reassuringly intuitive actor whisperer. He knew what he wanted and, more important, what it took to get his actors there. With some it might require cajoling, while with others, more cunning manipulation.
Whoopi Goldberg was happy to be taken under his wing. “[F]or an actor like me who likes the process of creating a life–sort of like this God thing–it’s wonderful to have a co-God,” she told an interviewer. That’s a gem Harris dug up among the hundreds of stories about Nichols written across a very public six-decade career, and that he uses shrewdly to augment his own interviews.
I don’t think it’s surprising to read that actresses, especially, trusted Nichols. The list includes Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Melanie Griffith, among many. From the brutal Virginia Woolf and Carnal Knowledge, to the simply caustic like Heartburn and Primary Colors, one senses that the gulf between men and women was a consuming, and wounding, obsession. Harris suggests that in his marriage to Diane Sawyer he seemed finally to have found the affection, engagement and security that eluded, even scarred him, in childhood.
So why was he still pissed off? The conclusion one can only reach by the end of this fine tale told is the one reached by his psychiatrist so long ago. Anger drove Nichols, even as he channeled it to something more nuanced and complex. At his best, it emerged as art. It’s who he was.